To Touch the Sun

Posted: May 17, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts, Sigil, The Gaming Industry

After making a comment yesterday on Moorgard’s blog, I decided to repost it here and expand upon it a bit…

“He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on “that Sigil thing”.  There’s a lot of finger pointing, and punditry, and all manner of folks falling over themselves to claim they were right about this way back in Beta X. 

In addition, there’s a great deal of villification occuring.  All manner of spooks and hobgoblins are being created through a variety of theories revolving around what “really happened”. 

I can’t speak for what happened internally at Sigil anymore than any other non-employee could. I don’t pretend to know all the finer details which occured behind closed doors.  Everything I would comment on is strictly Monday morning quarterbacking.  Like everyone else speaking out on the subject who wasn’t employed by Sigil (and a great many who were), I’m simply stating opinions based on nothing more than outside observation.

That said, if Brad is really guilty of anything here, it was reaching beyond reasonable limitations.  I see this all the time at clients. I come onboard and find that what they foresee happening and what I foresee as attaintable are often two completely separate beasts. It’s often my job to speak up with issues I see in the scope or “vision”, working often as a liason between engineers and sales/marketing/business groups – speaking up to state what can and can’t be reasonably accomplished within a given time or budget.

For development companies, time is often inflexible to a great extent. Release dates are often set very far in advance for a variety of reasons, and it’s up to developers to make sure the work happens within that allotted time. Since it’s typically hard to pull in more cash resources, this leaves only two real constraints to work with: labor hours and project scope.

With companies like SOE, they often pull a combination of the two, but at least with EQ2, they seem to reign in scope hard at times. Entire dungeons or feature sets are scrapped for release dates, in order to put in the work necessary on the remaining content.

For Sigil, this didn’t seem to be as much of an option. Sure, they scaled back a bit, but did the game really need to launch with that many continents and starting areas? Did the game really need to launch with that many races and classes? Did the game really need to have that many features?

From an outsider’s point of view, it appeared that Sigil was almost afraid to touch scope to any great extent. Was this due to scope being equated to “Vision (TM)”? A wiser man than I once commented on game design that “there are no sacred cows”. With Sigil, it seems they were unable to destroy the myriad of idols that had been propped up before them by McQuaid.

There’s no denying his vision of an MMO was great indeed. He certainly painted a beautiful portrait in our minds of what such a fanciful flight could truly be like. The problem is that, like Icarus, Brad attempted to fly too high too fast with this initial release. 

Five years and thirty million dollars. Even in a post-Warcraft market, that’s still a respectable amount of investment for any MMO. Yet, even with a staff of ~100 putting in inhuman hours, the project was simply too large in scope to handle. It needed to be reigned in. Cuts needed to be made earlier. Risks weren’t properly identified soon enough, and even if they were, they weren’t acted upon.

Customers are more saavy and the market is simply too diverse these days for a mediocre or substandard quality of product to be delivered for release. Games such as World of Warcraft have simply raised the bar on polish while lowering the bar for entry requirements. As Sigil’s rise and inevitable fall shows us, companies ignore these facts at their own peril.

Before you build a beautiful house, you must first construct a rock solid foundation. The more successful studios do this. You start relatively small and expand later on. You make sure your workers have the right tools for the job.

Reports coming out now indicate Sigil did not do any of this. If sources are to be believed, it would seem that Sigil started building too many parts of the house at the same time, and never managed to put the foundation in properly in the first place, all while supplying their workers with nothing better than hand tools, and giving them an unrealistic timetable to meet.

When the owners finally showed up to take the keys, they were initially excited to see what a large house was built (over and above what theyd’ intially hoped for) and then appalled to find the plumbing leaked, the shower had no pressure, there was no toilet in the master bathroom, and the roof only covered 95% of the top floor.

Sure, the workers offered to stay on and complete the repairs, but by that point, the owners had gone elsewhere to live. This was the house that McQuaid built. This, I feel, is to be his legacy for Vanguard: he sold us on a dream home, and delivered to us a fixer-upper.

  1. Bhagpuss says:

    The sheer geographical size of Vanguard’s world was, in fact, the key reason I bought the game. It’s also the key reason I have played no other MMO since Vanguard launched.

    Yes, it was insanely overambitious, but it is the sheer scale of the world that hooked me from the moment I first logged in, and the reason I haven’t gone back to EQ2 (which I love) or tried LoTRO (which I was intending to do).

    Had Vanguard launched as a smaller, tighter, largely bug-free game by dint of having fewer continents, fewer races, fewer classes, fewer starting zones and so on, I would very likely already have left by now. That’s exactly how DAoC launched, technically rock-solid but with a very small landmass, most of which was empty. By the time they had filled up the spaces I had already unsubscribed.

    I don’t think it was necessarily the scope of the Vision that was at fault, but the inability to marshall available resources to implement it effectively. Nevertheless, I love Vanguard and plan to be playing it pretty much exclusively at least until Rise of Kunark debuts.

  2. kendricke says:

    30 million dollars, 100 developers, and 5 years is a hell of a lot of resources already marshalled…but not for the sheer scope of what was intended at launch.

    When you realize the money is drying up, that the milestone dates aren’t being met, that you’ve got your developers putting in 15 hour days – at that point you have to scale back on a constraint. It shouldn’t require a logistical genius to figure this out.

    Somewhere between “OMG, VANGUARD IS SOOOO BIG” and “Dark Age was SOOOO small”, there’s a “just right” bowl of porridge that exists in the grey between the two extremes. You say you would have already quit had the game been smaller. I would assert that you wouldn’t know what “smaller” is had the scope been scaled back earlier on in the process.

  3. […] on Brett Close’s part.  After all, we’ve all learned our lessons on listening to Studio heads who talked big long before release, […]

  4. […] online. Tags: EA Mythic, Mark Jacobs, Project Management trackback A little over a year ago, I wrote a post-mortem on the fall of Sigil.   Other players and would-be designers chose to concentrate on Mr. McQuaid’s personal […]

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